In the Arena

Ron Paul Is Not a Politician

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul at a town-hall meeting in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Dec. 21, 2011

Washington, Iowa

I watched Ron Paul deliver his stump speech — to large and loving crowds — twice on Wednesday, and he did a very strange thing for a political front runner. He emphasized the things traditional Republicans are least likely to approve of in his libertarian appeal. He began each speech with a long, discursive section on foreign policy — citing George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush, among others — and spoke of the perils of entangling alliances, the military-industrial complex and nation building. He minced no words. He said the money we saved overseas could be used to bolster programs like Social Security and Medicare, until we transition away from them. Then he devoted another long section to civil liberties, to his opposition to the Patriot Act and the illegality — he believes — of assassinating Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda leader who was an American citizen, in Yemen. This was not political comfort food.

He didn’t spend much time at all on the stuff he favors that Republicans love — cutting $1 trillion from the federal budget in a year, cutting five Cabinet departments, lowering taxes, restricting abortion and so forth. And yet the audiences seemed thrilled with him, gave him standing ovations, replete with cheers and whistles, before and after each speech. Afterward, when he took questions, they tended toward the worshipful:

“How do you stay so fit?”

“Who’s going to be your Vice President?”

“Do you think [Iowa Governor] Terry Branstad and the party establishment have it in for you?”

Whatever you might say about Paul, this is not politics as usual. He’s not a great speaker; he rambles in a thin voice, garbling some of his best applause lines. He doesn’t give the same speech twice but wanders around through his favorite topics — last time I saw him, in October, he gave an extended, abstruse lecture on currency policy. Now that he’s a front runner in Iowa, he hasn’t trimmed or changed his message at all, except, perhaps, to become more defiantly at odds with the Republican establishment.

He can sum up his philosophy in a paragraph: “[The Washington establishment] believes that if you have the freedom to keep what you earn and take care of yourself, you won’t do it. They want to do it for you — and they’ve been trying for the past 70 years, since the Great Depression. But we’ve learned that government can’t do it either.”

This is a bit too neat for my taste, but it has far more resonance now than it has had in the past. Part of it is Paul himself — he is who he is, and given the Trump-Cain-Newt-Mitt disappointments, he is a man who can be trusted. That is enormously important this year. He is palpably different from every other candidate in the race: he doesn’t seem at all like a politician. I’m not sure he is one. Another part of his sudden appeal is the sense that nothing seems to work these days. “I was a Democrat. I voted for Obama last time,” said a truck driver and, yes, stand-up comedian named Dave Johnson after Paul’s speech in the town of Washington. “But look what he’s done. The bailouts, the spending. Right now, he wants to cut Social Security taxes even though the trust fund is in trouble. I voted for him because I thought he was going to be the opposite of Bush — end the wars, reduce the deficit, improve the economy — and we’ve only gotten more of the same.”

Paul seems more comfortable dealing with abstractions like the money supply rather than the day-to-day problems of actual people. When he gets a real question, he fumbles about and eventually seeks refuge in the free market. In Mount Pleasant, a man asked what Paul would do about retraining people who had lost their jobs. “There are about 1,000 jobs available for trained welders here in Iowa,” the man said. “What do we do to train them?” After some circumnavigation, Paul suggested we go back to the days of apprenticeships that paid less than skilled craft jobs. O.K. But there’s a more up-to-date free-market answer: be more like Germany, where companies advise vocational schools on their curriculum and develop programs that train young people for technical production and construction work. (I saw Jon Huntsman give a chapter-and-verse response to this question a few weeks ago.)

In Washington, Paul took a question from a young woman who had survived cancer. “We have good insurance,” she said. “But what happens if my husband gets laid off? I now have a pre-existing condition. Where do we get insurance?” Paul acknowledged that it was a tough question. In the old days, before the government mucked things up, the churches ran a lot of hospitals and would take all comers. “The insurance companies and drug companies control Obamacare,” he said, which is not inaccurate, but is also not very comforting either.

And that is where Paul’s libertarianism falls down. This is a complicated society, undergoing an ever more rapid transformation in the midst of a potentially long economic slump. There are a lot of people who have lost jobs and need help getting new skills (admittedly, the current government training programs are, as Romney points out, a complete, ineffective mess). There are a lot of people who can’t get insurance — certainly not at a reasonable price.

On an even more basic level, it would be nice to believe that people could take care of themselves without government help, but it just hasn’t proved true: programs like Social Security and Medicare — which run directly against the Jeffersonian-libertarian tradition — were necessary because people couldn’t take care of themselves. The elderly, especially, had trouble paying medical bills after their working days ended. The American people, through their government, decided to make a rudimentary deal, to make sure their parents didn’t starve or sleep in the streets and were able to get medical care. There was nothing unconstitutional about that — just as there’s nothing unconstitutional about requiring people to have medical insurance now. The deal was made with the consent of the governed. In the real world, these are the most popular programs the government offers — about 80% of the American people are happy with them.

There is vast frustration with … with … everything right now. And so it’s not a bad moment to review the most basic assumptions of our public life, to question the most basic functions of government. It may well turn out that we’ve tried to do too much. It will certainly turn out that we didn’t have the Keynesian discipline to run budget surpluses when times were good to pay for the deficits when times were bad. (Paul’s hero Friedrich Hayek had a meeting of the minds with Keynes on that point after World War II.) It may be that we need a different sort of safety net for a more competitive global economy. It may be that we’re going to have to do with less.

It’s these sorts of times that raise up people with simple answers: ideologues and demagogues. Paul is an ideologue and — we’re lucky — an entirely honorable one. His is an important voice. It helps frame the debate; it helps keep his opponents honest. The big surprise is that the harsh measures he advocates seem almost a comfort in the sea of  blather that is inundating Iowans this week. But, I suppose, the real story here is, finally, the total discomfort with the sort of no-risk, no-sacrifice nonsense that politicians have been selling for the past 40 years.